Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is now recognized as a serious and sometimes deadly risk for police officers. But experts say law enforcement managers still have a long way to go in addressing the problem.
On a warm early morning in 2007, police officer Mark Dibona was sitting in his cruiser in front of a fire station in Sanford, Florida.
Dibona was taking notes in his police logbook when a woman carrying an unconscious infant approached him, frantically asking for help.
“My baby isn’t breathing!” she said.
Dibona performed CPR but was unable to revive the infant. The three-month-old baby boy died at a nearby hospital.
He blamed himself for the death. In the following weeks, Dibona became withdrawn and started to drink heavily, often with fellow officers after his shift. He spiraled into depression, and was later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“When I became a cop in 1985, we were told nothing should bother you, just keep it moving,” Dibona recalled in an interview with The Crime Report. “Cops don’t like to show their emotions.”
But when he finally mustered enough strength to approach his supervisor, he received no help.
Instead, he was told to “toughen up”—to “go home and have a beer; the feeling will eventually die.”
Dibona added that if he had known “the dirty little secret of law enforcement”—not only the high risk of PTSD, but that he would get little empathy or counseling for the stresses of the job—he might have chosen a different profession.
The “dirty little secret” is no longer hidden. According to studies cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population.
Some officers have found support and understanding from their families. Dibona, for example, credits his wife for making sure he attends regular counseling sessions. And unlike the experience of their predecessors who were told to “toughen up,” the dangers of persistent and high-level stress are winning some recognition today at senior levels of police departments and law enforcement organizations.
Still, despite local and national programs to help cops cope with severe stress, experts say there is still a long way to go.
“One of the most critical issues in police training is to help police officers deal with mental issues, (yet) stress on the job is stress-management training they do not receive,” said Maria Haberfeld, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who served in the Israeli National Police Force.
“The same way they need to be qualified for firearms twice a year, it has to be mandatory to go to stress management,” Haberfeld said. “It cannot be left to officers alone, because they won’t go. It needs to be institutionalized in the training process.”
Serving in neighborhoods where community residents are openly distrustful or hostile to the police has added a new level of stress, many officers have said. As communities erupt in anger over killings of unarmed civilians, police feel even further isolated.
“I truly think our mental health has taken a backseat to everything that’s going on today,” Dibona said.
Suicide remains a major issue among officers. According to Badge of Life, a police suicide prevention program, an officer commits suicide every 81 hours. Each year, there is an average of 130 suicides.
“The key issue isn’t suicide; it’s mental health,” said Ron Clark, the founder and director of Badge of Life.
A retired cop, Clark also suffers from PTSD and depression as a result of trauma incurred while on duty. Clark realized that coping mechanisms like consuming alcohol and not verbalizing how he felt weren’t helping.
“I saw that I needed help because I would just do things and regret them later,” he said. “I would drink uncontrollably, not realizing that I was emotionally unstable.”
According to John Jay’s Haberfeld, such coping mechanisms have been a part of police culture for generations.
“They talk to each other, they go for a drink, and this is the reason why police officers have a higher rate of alcoholism than other professions because that’s how they distress. It’s sort of a venting process than a coping process,” Haberfeld said.
Laura Usher, NAMI’s senior manager for criminal justice and advocacy, adds the growing awareness of officers’ mental-wellness needs have led to peer support programs in many agencies around the country.
But she added: “It would be a good idea for an annual mental-wellness check to be a part of their fitness training and re-certification. This will help officers get familiar with mental health resources and simply introduce them to the topic.”
Private groups like Badge of Life have similarly pushed for annual mental check-ups for all officers with a therapist of the individual’s choice.
But Dimona says these aren’t enough to address the problem. He echoes the call for mental-wellness training starting in the academy, but believes it should continue throughout an officer’s career—and after.
“It should be mandated in training, in the academy, while on duty, and after retirement,” he said, adding that cumulative, untreated stress is a reason why “a lot of officers die shortly after they retire.”
Dibona now works for the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in Florida, where he supervises nine officers,but the memory of that June morning still haunts him.
“Until this day,” said Dibona, who admits to having contemplating suicide several times before he began counselling, “I can feel the warmth of that baby on my arm.”
Tiffany S. Thomas is a freelance journalist in New York City, with experience in international reporting in Kenya, South Africa, Jamaica and Israel. She welcomes comments from readers.